Our city has lots of famous in-town kinds of folks that everyone just sort of knows about…from the wealthy elusive cowboys that quietly fund funky new restaurants and trails throughout town to local homeless folks that travel the the streets, who we all recognize and see regularly. Sometimes we know their names, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes they disappear and we wonder if they’re ok, and then suddenly they walk through the parking lot you’re parked in and you know it’s ok.
When I moved here, 20 years ago I was told about one such woman as sort of a myth, we’ll call her A. Among other things, she was known for messages she’d paint on her fence facing a major road, sitting on her roof, and her interesting run-ins with strangers in cars or on foot. For instance, I almost killed her once in 2002, when she jumped from dark bushes at night right in front of my car. I drove the rest of the way home, hands shaking, thinking about my almost notorious new fate as the killer of this famous local legend. When I later came face to face with her in the toilet paper section of the Dollar Tree, I quickly walked away, nervous about another such interaction, while also happy to add to my own repertoire of “A. sightings.”
When friends came to town, we’d often drive by her house to see her unique yard decor and the story of her life swelled to actual tall tale: where she was from, how she’d been widowed, the stories behind her cryptic fence messages, and how she not only sat on her pitched roof, but rocked on it (my husband swears he actually saw this occur when he was a teenager).
But one night at a birthday dinner about a decade ago, I found out that my friend’s new boyfriend was her neighbor and he and his roommates had actually befriended her. He even had a recent voicemail from her. We listened amazed. He knows her! She knows him! Tell us more!
And just like that, the myth of her melted into the story a her: a real human, a member of the Greek Orthodox church, a servant herself to those in need, a surrogate grandmother, a choir member, an immigrant. She had a hard life, that not many had chosen to know except my friend and his roommates and now new girlfriend.
And when they were married, their friendship with her continued. When their babies were introduced to A., she sang to them in Greek and held them with the love of any grandmother. And they welcomed this local widow with no family here into their lives and she invited them into her’s. And when she got really sick years ago, and lost her place to live, the neighborhood rallied around her and helped. I’ve watched these people become her home. And you know what? I bet no one has seen her distrust or anger on the streets of our neighborhood in a decade. She finally had the gift of love and acceptance.
A. breathed her last breaths on Saturday am, and the city will probably tell her story, most of it untrue, for years to come. Grown adults will tell about the time they were 15 and saw her in real life and I’ll always shudder about how I almost hit her with my car in the dark. And some will wonder where she went. But my friends will miss her actual love. And her songs. And her laughter. She is healed now from the troubles of life. She is with God, who she loved so much. She is whole with Jesus. And I’m sitting here, blessed to know the two who opened their home to her, they loved her faithfully until the end. They didn’t do it because the government made them, or to pat themselves on the back, or put it all over the socials. They did it because she was there and they were there and they chose to care and to look and listen. It just flowed out of them. And then she blessed them right back. This friendship between unlikely neighbors challenges me and convicts me and gives me hope. What blessings await us when we open our eyes and hearts to those around us.
In the end, it’s what Jesus did when his love flowed out to actual people. Not through laws, and programs, but just face to face real life moments in which people were touched and changed and healed-given newness. I will never forget the example of Christ in my friends toward A., the famous local widow.
We all have a story. No one is a caricature.